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Political Polling Companies: Methods, Accuracy and Right Questions

Published: Mar 21, 2024

Political polling companies are pivotal in shaping the discourse of democracy, influencing electoral strategies, policy agendas, and public perception. This is nice as a sales pitch. However, these polling companies and their polls have complexities and controversies. 

To ensure we make the best use of them while remaining wary of being sold upriver by biased polls, we have to examine fundamental aspects of how these political polling companies work. We delve deeper into polling methodologies’ intricacies, sample bias challenges, and the ever-present specter of margin of error. 

We will also present some case studies so you can pick from some of the best political polling companies in the United States. 

What are public opinion polls?

Public opinions are “those opinions held by private persons which governments find it prudent to heed.” – VO Key, Political scientist. 

Public opinion polls offer insights into voters’ thoughts, preferences, and attitudes by analyzing answers to a structured survey on various topics, ranging from political preferences to social issues and economic outlooks. 

Ideally, the poll minimizes bias by selecting a diverse sample encompassing various age groups, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and geographic locations. However, sampling biases, respondent selection bias, and methodological errors can skew results and undermine the accuracy of findings. 

Even things like the framing of questions, wording choices, and survey administration techniques can influence respondents’ answers, introducing potential sources of bias. As such, interpreting poll data requires a nuanced understanding of the methodologies employed and the context in which the surveys were conducted.

Public opinion polls typically involve both quantitative and qualitative approaches. 

  • Quantitative methods rely on structured questionnaires administered to many respondents, allowing for statistical analysis. 
  • Qualitative techniques, however, delve deeper through open-ended questions, focus groups, and interviews, providing richer insights into the underlying reasons behind certain viewpoints – but they speak to fewer people. 

These polls shape electoral strategies, policy agendas, and governance decisions. Politicians closely monitor poll results to gauge their popularity, identify key issues of concern among constituents, and tailor their messaging accordingly. Moreover, polls serve as barometers of public approval, influencing the trajectory of political campaigns and the strategies employed by candidates.

How accurate is political polling?

“We simulated a Nov. 8 (2016) election 10 million times using our state-by-state averages. In 9.8 million simulations, Hillary Clinton ended up with at least 270 electoral votes. Therefore, we say Clinton has a 98.0% chance of becoming president.

This is the most famous ‘wrong’ poll of recent times – made by Huffington Post on the eve of the 2016 elections. For the record, Trump won with 304 electoral votes. 

But does that mean we shouldn’t trust polls? Not quite. 

A study done by the Pew Research Center, found that “…despite low response rates, national polls like the Pew Center’s come within a few percentage points, on average, of benchmarks from high response rate federal surveys.” 

To take an example cited by Pew, support for ‘Defund the Police’ was gauged at 15%, with a four-percentage increase or decrease as a margin for error. However, whether it is 19% or 11%, it still indicates low support for the initiative. 

And how accurate have polls been at calling the winner since 2016? According to an extensive study by FiveThirtyEight in 2019, polls accurately predicted the winner about 70% of the time if the margin between the candidates was larger than 5%. This number comes down significantly in closely contested races. 

Speaking of that error margin, as per a study by Houshmand Shirani-Mehr (Stanford University) and David Rothschild (Microsoft Research), we should consider polling errors to be double the usual “3% plus or minus” and instead assume something more like 7% plus or minus to have the most statistically accurate poll prediction. 

To sum up, although there are some famous misses, political polling is a reasonably accurate gauge of voter sentiment. It gives you close to 70% accuracy, as long as you remember to adjust all polling data with a 6-7% plus or minus margin of error. 

How can political polling help your campaign?

If this is all just a probability anyway, then is it really worth the money (and effort), to use political polling in your campaign?

The answer is a resounding YES.

Political polling is not just for predicting who will win the election. It also tells you the public sentiment towards the candidate at a given point. That insight can be used to craft a winning campaign strategy.

In the 2008 US elections, one of Obama’s pollsters, Benenson, had two crucial insights for him:

So it was important to portray Obama as an equally viable option (if not better), despite lacking both, the experience and the brand appeal.

This understanding was critical in building his campaign messaging – ‘For change, we can believe in.’ It subtly disregards the other candidates’ ‘advantages’, while making Obama’s perceived shortcomings more attractive.

To take a newer example – On October 2019, Bernie Sanders made a campaign appearance in Marshalltown, Iowa for his Presidential Primary campaign. As expected, he made a hard push for his healthcare reform plan. 

What was unexpected was the additional tangent that he included in his campaign messaging. 

Without being prompted, Bernie told the crowd that his age is nothing but an advantage for the campaigns. 

Why did Bernie bring up his age at all? Because he had important intel – “Polling has suggested that a significant number of Americans believe a candidate in his or her late 70s is too old to be president.” (Source – AP News

Realizing that his constituents saw his age as an impairment, Bernie hastened to address the issue and win back popularity.

Similarly, Biden promised to release his health records before the Iowa Caucuses began in Feb 2020. 

Such crucial changes are the bedrock of any campaign. And polling data is how you gain these insights. So make sure not to skip out on this step. 

When it comes to picking your polling firm, going solely by reputation could be a bad idea. For instance, Joel Benneson, Paul Harstead and David Binder – three of Obama’s leading pollsters were relatively low profile public figures when Obama hired them. But here are some highly rated examples, and how they made a difference. 

Political polling companies in well-rounded surveys: Elway Research

Elway Research Inc. is a Seattle based research firm established in 1975. They have conducted on-ground research and evaluation projects for governmental agencies, political campaigns, media outlets, major corporations, NGOs, and small businesses. The firm has received an “A+” grade from FiveThirtyEight Pollster Ratings.

H. Stuart Elway is the founder and president of Elway Research. He has directed hundreds of research projects for businesses, governmental agencies at all levels, candidates, and media outlets across the United States.

Elway Research provides independent, non-partisan analysis of public opinion on every major issue on the public agenda. The firm also follows candidate races and ballot issues – letting clients see what voters feel on every issue being fought over.   

What do they specialize in?

  • Focus group design
  • Facilitation and analysis
  • Electronic town meetings
  • Citizen workshops
  • Administration and analysis of survey research

So if you want to know what the public thinks about almost any issue in the Northeast, this is the firm for you. 

For a sample of how their work brings change, consider their 2024 poll: 

In 2024, Washington State found itself with an unexpected $1 billion. So what would they spend it on? The 2024 Elway poll had some answers. It found that – 

  • 84% of voters wanted more behavioral health programs to combat the opioid epidemic.
  • 57% of voters favored repealing the state’s new capital gains tax. 
  • 66% of respondents wanted to eliminate some restrictions on when police can pursue criminal suspects in cars.

So this gave the state Legislature an idea about what they could spend that money on – more recovery centers for addiction and the repealing of two new laws. In fact, the tax reduction is going to actually be on the ballot in November 2024. 

Here’s how one media outlet summed up Elway’s poll about voters in 2024 – “Asked to describe their feelings about the coming presidential election, they didn’t hold back: scared, frightened, discouraged, uneasy, pessimistic, unenthusiastic. Some predicted a shit-show.” 

Political polling companies on brand building: ​​Harris Insights & Analytics

Harris Insights & Analytics is a market research firm headquartered in Rochester, New York. It has four offices in New York, Chicago, Arlington, and London.

The firm is known for its “The Harris Poll” which is one of the longest-running surveys measuring public opinion in the US. It’s renowned for having advised leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. They work in a wide range of industries and across countries throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.

What do they specialize in?

  • Public opinion
  • Market survey research
  • Reputation & Brand strategy
  • Societal trends

Famously, in 1959 former President John F. Kennedy hired Harris to do all his polling for the forthcoming presidential campaign. Harris was paid $400,000 for his surveys, much more than what any political pollster had ever received before.

JFK and Bobby Kennedy were the only people who had access to the polls. And these polls made the difference between victory and defeat in the 1960 presidential elections.

But in terms of case studies, the most interesting aspect of ‘brand building’ was a survey Harris Poll conducted in 2019, which revealed that – 

  • 64% of registered voters did not like candidates who made ransomware payments.
  • 79% of registered voters consider cybersecurity when making voting decisions.

Now roughly 1 in 5 Americans (21%) have experienced a ransomware attack on a personal and/or work device, and some 46% have made a ransomware payment to be rid of the criminals. 

If you were a candidate who wanted a small bump, you could take a strong stance on ransomware payments. 

These sorts of crucial details help you build the perfect brand, thanks to a good poll. 

Political polling companies on communications: Impact Research

Impact Research (originally known as AGL Research) operates as a political research and communications firm. The firm provides a wide range of services, including polling, focus groups, dial tests, web-based advertisement testing, and online surveys. 

They serve political candidates, issue advocates, labor unions, and corporate clients. According to FiveThirtyEight’s Pollster Ratings, the firm has received an “A” grade. Impact has four offices in Montgomery, AL, New York City, and Lanai, Hawaii.

John Anzalone started the firm in 1994 in Washington, D.C. He has twenty-five years of polling experience and has polled for Barack Obama (2008 & 2012) and Hillary Clinton (2016).

What do they specialize in?

  • Message development
  • Strategic consulting
  • Online polls & focus groups
  • Conjoint analysis
  • Data Analytics

As a case study, here’s an important work they helped make happen – 

Impact played an important role in helping elect President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. 

In 2008, they conducted polls in nine states for the Obama campaign, including the critical states of Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. They also developed the campaign’s message and targeted women and rural voters. They identified white subgroups and targeted messages that appealed to them, helping propel Obama to a fourteen-thousand-vote victory over Mitt Romney. 

In 2012, they came up with the phrase ‘Break the Fever’ to remind voters that Barack Obama wanted to end the rapid bipartisan infighting that was dividing the country. And he swept that election as well. 

Considering the margins of President Obama’s victories – his communication was definitely on point. 

Political polling companies on local research: ​​SurveyUSA

SurveyUSA is a political polling firm in the United States that conducts custom, local opinion research for universities, nonprofits, governments, businesses, ad agencies, and public relations firms.

In 1993, SurveyUSA disrupted the political polling companies landscape – reducing the time and cost of surveys dramatically. Once bloated questionnaires took a respondent 40 minutes to wade through, data analysts took a month to study. SurveyUSA created simplified questionnaires that could be written and launched on the same day. 

The key difference between SurveyUSA and other telephone political polling companies is that instead of using live call center employees, the firm uses an automated system. Pre-recorded questions are asked automatically, and the respondent has to press a button to leave a reply. 

Secondly, they use simple and concise language for ballot propositions compared to their competitors.

What do they specialize in?

  • Tracking polls
  • Hyper-local research
  • Effective communication

Here’s an interesting case study on how they made a crucial difference: 

Back in 2004, George W. Bush was running for a second term against war hero John Kerry. All of America wanted to know how it would go because it was the ‘war on terror’, and both men held military achievements as the main debating point.  

So how did the nation feel minutes after the first highly anticipated debate between the two? Here’s how SurveyUSA puts it – 

Minutes after the first debate in the 2004 Presidential Election …

  • ABC News completed one poll of 531 debate watchers.
  • CNN completed one poll of 615 debate watchers.
  • CBS News completed one poll of 655 debate watchers.

NBC News did nothing. They asked SurveyUSA. 

SurveyUSA completed 35 separate polls in 35 separate geographies of 14,872 debate watchers. NBC affiliates in Seattle, Salt Lake, and Denver had a scientific SurveyUSA reaction in hand minutes after the debate. 

How’s that for quick performance? 

Yet, amidst their contributions, challenges persist for political polling companies. From the changing methods of communication to the complexities of accurately capturing diverse perspectives – it becomes increasingly important to scrutinize polls, foster transparency, and acknowledge the inherent limitations of polling.

Ultimately, political polling companies stand at the intersection of data, democracy, and discourse, influencing not only electoral outcomes but also shaping narratives and driving informed decision-making. So, asking the right questions makes all the difference. 

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